Our Liberalism Problem

Liberalism ain’t what it used to be—collectivism is out and individuality is in. And this is especially true for our generation.

The common joke among Harvard students and faculty is that our community is an unashamed bastion of liberalism (and by liberalism, we all mean classic American FDR-style liberalism, not the European libertarian brand). Just last week, one of my professors joked: “You all attend Harvard, so we already know what party you’re voting for.” And I don’t disagree. Most Harvard students would, in fact, label themselves Democrats. Many will vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. So aren’t all these people liberals? What is our “liberalism problem”?

Let’s begin with a common phrase I hear around Harvard’s campus: “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.” The number of people who subscribe to this division of political affinities seems to grow by the day. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that there is a growing number of young democratic voters who are skeptical of economic redistribution and “the cost of social programs”  and believe much more strongly in the importance of issues of personal and sexual autonomy, like same-sex marriage and abortion.

But where does one draw the line between social and fiscal policies? Is eliminating the wage gap between men and women an economic problem that should be left to the market to fix? Or is it a social problem that requires government intervention to correct for the imperfections of the market?

We have grown up in an age of diminishing trust in the public sector and growing admiration for all things private. As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center said in an interview with Thomas Edsall: “There is a libertarian streak that is apparent among these left-of-center young people. Socially liberal, but very wary of government. Why? They came of age in an anti-government era…They are very liberal on interpersonal racial dimension, but reject classical liberal notions about ways of achieving social progress for minorities.”


In other words, the millennial generation has begun to lose its respect for the public sector and focus more on the power of the individual to shape our political goals. This infatuation with individuality has caused a fundamental shift in the nature of our liberalism.

One of the major justifications for this newfound focus on the individual is the use of “identity politics” to frame our political discourse. By identity politics, I mean how specific experiences, those of ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation, are used as a lens through which to view our political life. Somewhere along the way (many historians including Tony Judt point to the ‘60s as a starting point) progressivism became associated with identity politics.

Identity politics, however, in its original formulation, was about group identities—for example, the identity of black men or gay men—so it had some collective ideology behind it. Much of this collectivism has been twisted into identity brands used for the purpose of self-expression, rather than collective action to better oppressed groups. In other words, today’s identity politics has been co-opted by a sense of capitalist individualism that is harmful to the very groups that identity politics was originally created to protect.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Thomas Chatterton Williams voiced this new relationship between identity and individuality perfectly: “If ‘black lives matter’ genuinely, then we must recognize minority individuality: Black people should pursue their own opportunities for the good life wherever they can.” And this idea is pervasive in almost every iteration of individualistic identity rhetoric.

The real problem with today’s distorted identity politics is that, as Thomas de Zengotita argues in his essay “Common Ground,” our devotion to individual identity has allowed us to ignore the Enlightenment values for which progressivism has always stood: Namely, that each life is inherently equal. The emphasis has shifted from equality to individuality.

And this really gets to the heart of it: Our desire for individual self-expression has always come naturally from the idea that we must appreciate the equality of identities. This is not the case in today’s version of identity politics.

In his book, “Ill Fares the Land,” Tony Judt argues that, in a modern society obsessed with the individual, we have increasingly lost our sense of community.

To use one of Judt’s examples most relevant to my own life, this new identity politics has led many to eschew community markers, like school uniforms. My own K-12 school, a self-proclaimed progressive school, prided itself on its lack of school uniforms and taught us that we were able to better express ourselves as individuals with our freedom to dress how we please. I grew up loving my uniform-less schooling. But what I saw as independence was a way to divide a student body by socioeconomic markers that come with the clothing that one student can afford and another cannot. As Judt says, uniforms, whether worn by schoolchildren or other workers, always “bespoke a certain egalitarianism.”

The growing emphasis on self-expression, self-interest, and self-advancement now inherent in identity politics has manifested itself across the Harvard campus. There seems to be an ever-growing desire for private sector jobs, and I am not the first to make this observation.

More than just the mainstream consulting and financial services jobs, we are obsessed with the new industries that seem to nurture the individual’s ingenuity and a sense of the entrepreneurial spirit, like the tech world. Many graduates who used to take jobs at Goldman Sachs are now joining the teams at Google and Microsoft.

The symbol of our generation’s infatuation with this new world of privatized glory is Steve Jobs—a man who has seemingly been given the title of national hero. I am not here to diminish the accomplishments of a truly talented man. But is this unadulterated admiration for a man like Jobs warranted? Where is our admiration for the career civil servant or the teacher, who spent her entire professional life struggling to help kids in an underserved neighborhood in East Harlem or Detroit?

This is not to say that new identity politics is all bad. We are, after all, an incredibly open-minded generation. We are ever mindful of nurturing the individual. But we must ask ourselves, at what cost? Have we given up on the values of collectivism? Has our disillusion with the inefficiencies in government led us to give up on the idea of a collective, public good altogether?

The concern ultimately becomes, as Judt writes, that when “young people are encouraged to maximize self-interest and self-advancement, the grounds for altruism or even good behavior become obscured.” This is our liberalism problem. The next move is ours.


Nick F. Barber ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.


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